Declining fertility rates improves well-being of women and girls

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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

A new report released this month by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) concludes that declining fertility rates in low- and middle-income countries over the past four decades have improved the overall well-being of women and girls, particularly in terms of their maternal health, educational attainment and workforce participation.

The evidence however is less conclusive in demonstrating that having smaller families has yielded better gender relations and improved gender equality.

The report, “How Have Fertility Declines Benefitted Women’s Lives in Low- and Middle-Income Countries?” is the result of a comprehensive review of existing evidence and a synthesis of case studies conducted by the Fertility & Empowerment (F&E) Network. Led by ICRW, the Network was comprised of academic and applied researchers who sought to understand the other side of the traditional equation that suggests that women’s empowerment – or the process by which they have the ability to make strategic life choices – contributes to lower fertility rates. Instead, researchers wanted to address whether and to what extent fertility decline has contributed to gains to women’s empowerment.

“We hypothesized that having fewer children may not only improve women’s wellbeing, but may also trigger changes in the roles they play in their families, at work and in their communities,” said Kirsten Stoebenau, ICRW gender and population specialist. “These sort of changes could then be influential in the economic and social development of whole societies, as well as in improving gender equality.”

Analyzing the implications of having fewer children for women’s lives has largely been neglected globally; more attention has been given to the consequences of fertility decline as it relates to public policy, health and economic growth in low- and middle-income countries.

ICRW believes it’s crucial to fill this gap in knowledge, particularly as fertility rates continue to fall. Researchers say the benefits of these demographic shifts to women’s lives may be restricted unless policies can accelerate changes in gender norms and systems – both in the public and private spheres.

The main findings drawn from the F&E Network case studies and supported by the broader literature indicate:

  • Women who have fewer pregnancies are less likely to die during childbirth, more likely to live longer and to be healthier, overall.
  • As fertility declines, parents invest more in their children, including in their educational pursuits. However, gains to women’s education alone will not reshape gender relations. Yet when education is accompanied by other changes that increase a woman’s ability to control her own destiny, it can indeed play a transformative role.
  • Women who spend less time on childbearing and childrearing live longer and are increasingly available for activities outside of the home – including pursuing and securing gainful employment. Women’s increasing participation in the labor market, however, does not automatically imply that they will feel more empowered and their lives will improve.

Limited evidence made it difficult to draw strong conclusions about how demographic shifts may transform gender roles and relations. “We think that this is only likely to happen when gendered expectations for women transform in both the public sphere, such as through work and schooling opportunities; as well as the private sphere, through shifts in expected gender roles and responsibilities within the home,” Stoebenau said.

Read the brief that synthesizes the evidence.

Read the full report.

Gillian Gaynair is the founder of Mallett Avenue Media, a Washington, D.C.-based firm specializing in content that shows how foundations, nonprofits and corporations effect change in the U.S. and globally.